Are Practical Reasons Like Theoretical Reasons?

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1 Are Practical Reasons Like Theoretical Reasons? Jordan Wolf March 30,

2 1 Introduction Particularism is said to be many things, some of them fairly radical, but in truth the position is straightforward. When stripped of its terminological entourage valences, polarities, holism, invariantism, and any number of other isms - it makes a frustratingly weak claim: that any non-evaluative feature of an action is in principle capable of telling in favor or against the action (or neither favoring nor disfavoring the action). This claim is supported by what I refer to as the continuity argument, which claims that features of actions should be understood to function in the same way as evidence for beliefs. The particularist s claim is weak because if particularism is true, the theoretical landscape will remain unchanged. However, if it s false some moral positions will be put 1 in jeopardy, one of which is a retributive view of punishment. In this paper, I argue that retributive theories of punishment depend on the truth of particularism, which is supported in turn by the continuity argument. I play defense by arguing that the continuity argument fails and so lends no support to particularism, but I admit to having no offensive reason to disbelieve the theory either. The lack of general arguments against particularism is itself informative though; it tells us that particularism should be treated not as a position, but as a tool that the moral theorist may decide to us. 2 Reasons for Belief and the Continuity Argument According to Dancy, any piece of evidence can either be a reason to believe some conclusion, a reason not to believe the same conclusion, or no reason at all, depending on what other evidence exists. 2 Dancy describes an example of someone looking at a cup that appears to be red. In normal circumstances, the fact that the cup looks red is at least some reason to believe that it s red. However, in the presence of other evidence, the red appearance of the cup can change its function. If I have a justified belief that I took a color-inverting pill prior to looking at the cup, then its red appearance will no longer be a reason to believe that it s red. In fact, the cup s red appearance will now be a reason to believe that the cup is 1 Dancy concedes that some reasons might turn out to be invariant, due to their content. Qua reasons though, their ability to favor or disfavor actions is left open (136). 2 The word evidence is being used broadly and non-technically here and throughout this paper to mean things like information from the senses, a justified belief, a piece of reasoning, etc. The reason for choosing evidence over reason is that not all evidence is a reason. My justified belief that mars looks red from earth is no reason to believe that mars is the fourth planet from the sun. Evidence is supposed to be a neutral term. 1

3 not red. For completeness, consider a third case in which the pill I take does not invert color but randomizes it. After taking this pill, the cup s red appearance is not a reason to believe anything about its true color. For clarity, it s worth schematizing things a little bit. Let A stand for the cup s red appearance, B for the color-inverting pill, C for the color-randomizing pill, and R(Red) for a reason to believe that the cup is red. 1. A R(Red) 2. (A B) (A R( Red)) 3. (A C) (A R(Red)) Practical reasons are supposed to work in an analogous way. Above, a piece of evidence could be a reason to believe some proposition (1), a reason to disbelieve it (2), or not a reason either way (3). For actions, the analogous terms are features of an action and reasons to act. A feature of an action could be a reason to perform it, a reason not to perform it, or not a reason either way. 3 A feature could be a consequence of an action (that it will restore our friendship), but it need not be (an action might have the feature of being difficult or taking a long time). Furthermore, features of actions could be natural or non-natural. For example, an action could have the non-natural feature of being good or rational or it might have the natural feature of being the breaking of a promise or being such that it maximizes pleasure. The particularist s claim only applies to natural features because if an action has, say, the non-natural feature of being good, then it would be impossible for that feature to tell against the action. 4 Dancy has an example here too, but I find it much weaker than the colored cup case. He writes, For instance, that there will nobody much else there is sometimes a good reason for going there, and sometimes a very good for staying away ( ). The problem with this example is that the crowdedness of some destination is never a reason for going or not going someplace; it s incomplete as a reason to do anything. Of course, it s common for someone to say let s go there, I hear it s crowded tonight, where this statement is elliptical for I hear it s going to be crowded and therefore fun, but that an action will be fun is plausibly a feature that will never count against it. So, when a crowded place would 3 Since I m willing to concede that some features of an action can turn out to be no reason at all in the presence of other features (for example, the thrill of a bank robbery is no reason at all to rob a bank), I proceed on the assumption that the particularist will suffer a severe blow if features of actions are incapable of speaking both for and against an action depending on the circumstances 4 From here on, when I mention features of actions, I mean non-natural ones. 2

4 be fun, there s reason to go, but there s not a reason to go when a crowded place would be boring. And this is as it should be, since being fun is a good candidate for a feature than can never detract from an action. In short, the example trades on the unpredictable connection between crowdedness and fun; a connection which is required for crowdedness to be a reason to do anything at all, but in no way casts doubt on the unipolarity of fun. In any case, playing tit for tat with the particularist is not a successful strategy because the verdicts on any number of cases can be made compatible with his position. Luckily, we now have the resources to investigate things in greater abstraction by stating the continuity argument. 5 Premise 1. Any piece of evidence can be a reason to believe some conclusion, a reason to disbelieve it, or no reason to believe or disbelieve it, depending on the other pieces of evidence available. Premise 2. There s no reason to think that features of actions function any differently than evidence for beliefs. Conclusion. So, there s no reason to think that features of actions couldn t sometimes support, sometimes undermine, and sometime neither support nor undermine actions of which they are a feature. 3 Why a Retributive Theory of Punishment Depends on Particularism Retributivists believe that punishment is not justified by reference to some other value such as the overall good in society or the good of the person being punished. Instead, punishment inflicting harm in response to wrongdoing is valuable in itself. When a wrong is done, damage is done to the moral order that can only be repaired by punishing the offender. On this view, the fact that an action harms another person is a consideration in favor of it when the person being harmed is being punished for wrongdoing. To be plausible, this position will have to take refuge in the possibility that causing pain to another person can sometimes be a reason for an action and sometimes a reason against it. Otherwise, it will be subject to the following argument. Premise 1. Causing someone pain is an invariant consideration. It is either never a consideration against performing actions with it as a feature or never a reason in favor of performing actions with it as a feature. 5 I m taking this argument from pp

5 Premise 2. Causing someone pain is sometimes a consideration against performing actions with it as a feature. Conclusion. Causing someone pain is never a consideration in favor of performing actions with it as a feature. Premise one is just the denial of particularism and it confronts moral theorists with a choice: decide whether causing pain is either never wrong-making or never right-making. Premise two is just the plausible response to this choice. If forced to choose, it seems that causing pain is a feature that could never be right making given that so many examples demonstrate that causing pain is at least sometimes wrong-making. The easiest way out of this argument is deny premise one by accepting particularism, and so I turn back to the continuity argument on which it rests. 4 Particularism and the Continuity Argument Assessed The continuity argument rests on the supposed symmetry between evidence for beliefs and features of actions, but I think both premises of the argument are false. I first question premise two by arguing that there is a serious difference between theoretical and practical reasoning. Second, even if these two realms of reasons are similar, the argument still fails due to premise one s falsity: there are pieces of evidence that are incapable of disfavoring certain beliefs. Practical reason and theoretical reason treat the conflicts between reasons differently. A common feature of practical reasoning, and moral reasoning more specifically, is the clash of considerations that forces the agent to weigh each side and come to a judgment. Pretend that I have to throw someone into the wheels of an oncoming car in order to save ten bystanders or tell a lie to get help for a friend. In both of these cases, there is a residue of moral concern about the means. The lie feels like a moral loss, and I may feel the need to apologize to the family of the person I used to stop the car. These moral costs were deemed acceptable given the overall situation, but they were costs nonetheless. These sorts of situations are nowhere to be found in theoretical reasoning. For example, its not that there was some reason to believe Newtonian physics that was overridden by a stronger set of reasons to believe in relativistic physics. Rather, later incarnations of physics showed that there was no reason to continue believing the old model; apparent disagreements between the models were explained away by new evidence. The same could be said about economics. When assessing the different factors that affect GDP growth, no one just judges one factor to be undefeated yet outweighed, rather a further principle or 4

6 belief is cited to neutralize the supposed source of the conflict or more data is collected or one just admits that one needs further evidence. Sometimes there is a dispute about which theory to prefer that requires weighing followed by judgment, but such judgments are made from non-epistemologicl norms of theory evaluation just as cars are judged by common norms of performance. As philosophers of science are fond of pointing out, theory is underdetermined by evidence which means that choices must be made from an extra-epistemological standpoint like parsimony or ease of application. Of course, a critic will respond by saying that practical reason could still have all of the features of theoretical reasoning even if it has some unique features in addition. And his response is logically unassailable as it stands, but the overridingness of reasons as a phenomenon strongly suggests that invariant considerations are running up against each other. But even if practical reasoning does share all the characteristics of theoretical reasoning, this would still not support particularism because theoretical reasoning contains pieces of evidence that do not change their direction of support based on the other evidence that is available. Put in terms of the argument above, one could accept premise two but reject premise one. Take the fact that I see a red cup before me. This is surely incontrovertible evidence that there appears to be a red cup in front of me, even if it is not a reason to think that there is a red cup in front of me. Descartes cogito is another example of a piece of evidence (that I am thinking) that could never provide evidence for the proposition that I do not exist. If there are unidirectional reasons for belief, then it seems that we should expect there to be features of actions that can only weigh in one direction as well. In fact, not only should we expect a subclass of invariant features of actions, but we seem to find them fairly easily. 6 It is a borderline conceptual truth that a moral feature in favor of an action could never reverse and become a liability merely due to the presence of other non-moral features. For example, the time of day or the elevation that an action is performed at does not matter, and it does not seem that it would even be possible for features like these to transform things like lying or promise breaking into moral plusses. So at the very least, some features of action behave in a constant fashion relative to a host of other morally inert features. However, nothing I ve said here rules out the possibility that things like promise breaking or lying could become moral plusses in the context of other candidate moral features, but such examples are hard to find, and on the surface, it seems 6 There doesn t seem to be any cases in which the fact that an act is a lie or the breaking of a promise, or the contravention of an agent s wishes, even for the agent s benefit (paternalism), counts in favor of the action. 5

7 that moral features collide and overwhelm one another rather than reversing each other. At the beginning of this paper, I admitted to having no general arguments to undermine particularism, and I doubt that there are any arguments that support a prior restrictions on how reasons function. However, I have tried to undermine one source of support for the position and show that invariantism about features of actions is just as plausible as particularism given the way morality works. 5 Conclusion General arguments against particularism are nowhere to be found, and the one general argument offered in its favor fails. This leaves cases. As I said above, no case could show particularism to be false, but are there cases that require moral particularism to be true? The retributivist will answer yes, but this answer will be contingent on the plausibility of her theory of punishment, which is just how things stood before particularism came along: theory had to be tested against the phenomenon. References [1] Dancy, Jonathan. The Particularist s Progress. Moral Particularism. Eds. Brad Hooker and Margaret Little. Oxford: Clarendon,

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